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The Importance of an Anchor – Why Foreground Matters

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Most everyone is familiar with the concept of an anchor in the nautical sense. The anchor keeps the vessel from drifting away, due to current or wind. It fixes the vessel to a certain position. While this is easily understood, fewer people are aware of the need for a similar concept in photography.

I enjoy using wide angle lenses for landscape photography, but I also recognize that a wider focal length brings additional compositional challenges. While a wide focal length can produce visually exciting images, it can also produce really boring, empty feeling images. The nature of wide angle lenses is that they create the feeling of space, of distance. That distance can really disconnect the viewer from your subject, if you are not careful. When using a wide focal length, it becomes incredibly important to anchor your image with a strong foreground.

Trailhead

The trailhead in the foreground of this image, leads you into the grander scene.

The nature of a wide angle means that it distorts the perspective of the objects, closest to the camera. There is a feeling of distance from your background, so the eye needs something closer to engage it, before moving on to the grander scene beyond. I’m sure you’ve seen visually stunning images of famous mountain ranges, sunsets, waterfalls, or wild natural scenes. I’m willing to be that your favorites all feature a small scale object in the foreground. Patterns in the ice or snow, wildflowers, rocks, or fallen autumn leaves. These serve as the visual anchors of the scene. Without them the image becomes much more boring, and far less grand.

There are many beautiful places on our planet, but photography, much like everything else, is very trendy. It is rare that you have an opportunity to capture something that has never been photographed before. The challenge then, is to find a way to set your work apart from the crowd. Anchoring your image through something unique is one of the key ways to accomplish this. Take for example, the new One World Trade Center in New York City. It has an incredible amount of emotional capital invested in it, because of the events of September 11th, 2001. So, it’s been photographed hundreds of thousands of times already since its completion. I wanted something different, and I saw the opportunity while in Battery Park further up Manhattan Island. Green space is at a premium in the big city, so when I saw an opportunity to shoot the tower, with the anchor of some flowers in the park in the foreground, I jumped on it, and am happy to have a different perspective on a familiar sight (image below).

The City

The sunrises and sunsets of Arizona, in the American Southwest, are breathtaking, but can be challenge to capture because of the scale of the wide open spaces. This particular morning brought a gorgeous sunrise with a great, nuanced sky. I composed with a 15mm lens that could capture a lot of the context, but to keep it visually interesting I got about as close as I could to a clump of cholla cacti, that was catching the directional morning light. That grabs your attention first, and as your eyes move on through the scene, you have a great sense of depth of the wide open space because you are already visually anchored to the scene.

Cholla

Here’s another example from Ontario, Canada. This was the first snow of the winter, and the rivers and lakes were still not frozen. I shot a long exposure, that has a lot of subtleties in the sky and vibrant blue, wintry tones. But it’s made special by the patches of snow, caught amongst the plants, on the water’s edge in the foreground. These anchor the image, and give depth to it, along with providing some bright points in an otherwise dark scene.

Snow

Your anchor can also help to lead you into the scene. In this snowy scene on a cold, clear, winter day, the footprints featured in the foreground help lead your eye through the scene below.

Snow Footprints

Finally, the path that anchors this beautiful autumn image, eventually leads you to the elderly couple walking hand in hand. The name of this image is “Seasons of Life”, and the use of the anchor to lead the eye through the scene has helped me tell a story, and provide some emotional resonance.

Path

Another purpose of the anchor is to make a scene more visually engaging. Use the wide angle distortion to your advantage. I was driving through Ontario, Canada’s famous Algonquin Provincial Park, and noted the cool frozen cascades along the road. I wanted to include a road sign for more visual interest. Note how this first image, while not distorted, is not particularly interesting.

Less Interesting

In this second image, however, I got close enough to this sign that the wide angle lens I was using, distorted it. Distortion sounds bad, but the end result here is a more visually interesting image, where the sign helps point the eye into the scene, where you can see the frozen cascades along the road.

Sign

You can also use this to tell your story. I shot a visually lush scene, but wanted my anchor to tell the story of people “Dumping in Paradise”. By getting close to the old tire it becomes unnaturally prominent, but by shooting it with a wide angle lens I’m also able to give the larger context in one shot. I’ve suddenly got an image with a cause attached to it, because of the anchor. Shooting a closer shot of the tire stuck in mud wouldn’t have had the same visual impact.

Dumping in Paradise

One final way that an anchor is important, is to prevent a scene from feeling empty. The way that long exposures blur water is very cool, of course, but this image would have felt very empty with nothing but blurred water. It would have lacked any true feature. But the foreground rocks that I’ve included in the composition, give the eye something to look at, and that in turn causes the brain to appreciate the image more as a whole. The rocks also point you toward the island in the distance, creating some tension between the little rocks in the foreground, and the big rock beyond.

Zen

These are but a few examples to help you understand the relationship between the foreground and background of an image. The foreground is your anchor, and without that anchor there is a good chance the image is going to, well, drift. A good anchor will help build strong, visually appealing images that will help to set your work apart – and isn’t that what we are all looking for?

Do you use anchors in your wide angle landscape photography? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Dustin Abbott is a photographer, author, and reviewer, along with being a Pentecostal Pastor. He is married to Lana and they have three children. His work has been published in many publications and used commercially by a number of companies. You can find out more about him or read his reviews at www.dustinabbott.net and watch his video reviews on YouTube here.

  • Avi Singh

    i really thanks to you..for the info u provide..

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  • You’re welcome!

  • KaidanRX8

    This was very helpful. Thank you…

    Does this apply to city skylines? What if there is no subject for the foreground like in this picture? (This was taken off a peer and nothing attractive to show other than a fence.)

    (Also – I notice my shot isn’t very sharp/focused when I zoom in. What am I doing wrong?)

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesip/25442104790/in/datetaken-public/

  • Samantha Keele

    Geat article

  • Thank you, Samantha

  • This principle is less true when shooting with a telephoto lens. As far why you aren’t finding your photos sharp at a pixel level…that could be a number of issues

  • Tracy_P

    I love it when concepts are clearly explained and also clearly illustrated. This is both. Thanks!

  • That’s great feedback, Tracy. Thank you!

  • sofarsogood

    Nicely dine, Dustin. My students learn that ‘anchors’ are like stepping stones, allowing their eyes to hop from one to the next and ‘enter’ the image. They respond to that pretty well, as well.

  • That’s a good analogy.

  • Marc Thibault

    thanks yu for your observation ..and your reflexion…

  • My pleasure

  • Norman Unsworth

    I enjoyed your examples of a foreground anchor, in particular because the concept is often overblown. I often see otherwise beautiful images where the photographer’s innocuous foreground object has taken over the image instead of be a more subtle anchor for the ‘real’ subject. Not that I’m any expert, but I like the way you’ve composed the trailhead image, among others that serves to lead the eyes into or balances the subject, rather than taking over the image.

  • duna6430

    Great tips Dustin – thanks for your article.

  • My pleasure.

  • Quality feedback. Thank you!

  • Thanks for the reminder — and the examples! I particularly appreciate the trailhead and snowy footprint images, showing that foreground interest doesn’t necessarily mean having an object blocking the view!

  • That seems to be key for a lot of readers. People don’t like it when the concept is overdone and the foreground becomes too dominant.

  • Alma MacPherson

    Hi I do like your two photos of the cascades and can appreciate the technicalities of the second one but probably as a tourist I would enjoy the first one as the cascade is more spectacular. What could you do to this photo to make it better. Help appreciated.

  • I certainly could have gotten closer to the sign and used the same kind of principle to distort the sign somewhat and create the same kind of visual interest.

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